• A scene from installation
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Reflections on an Asian world

lifestyle October 31, 2016 01:00

By Huang Lijie
The Straits Times
Asia News Network

9,371 Viewed

Art pieces of the fifth edition of the Singapore Biennale reflect the theme “An Atlas of Mirrors”

Ten years after its first edition, the Singapore Biennale is coming into its own identity – one with a focus on contemporary art in Southeast Asia and an interest in fostering a deeper understanding of the culture and histories of its neighbours.

The biennale, which opened on Thursday and has as its theme “An Atlas Of Mirrors”, exhibits works that map and reflect the complex social, political, geographical and historical relationships shared by people and places in Asia. Its aim is to help viewers consider how they picture the world and themselves from where they stand.

The show is organised by the Singapore Art Museum and held at eight exhibition venues. It features 58 works of art by 63 artists and artist collectives from 19 countries and territories in the region. When it launched in 2006, the biennale, then organised by the National Arts Council, was an international exhibition that cast its net across 38 countries and regions and featured 198 works by 95 artists and artist collectives in 19 exhibition venues around Singapore.

This fifth edition may be more modest in size, but numbers do not tell the full story, says Tan Siuli, the biennale’s curatorial co-head.

“The quality of the biennale experience, rather than a numbers game, was foremost in our minds,” she says. And it will be extremely rich and varied, she adds, because the artists have responded to the theme in “beautiful and wonderfully imaginative ways”.

An installation called “Noah’s Garden II” by Chinese artist Deng Guoyuan, for example, is a glasshouse made of mirrors, with vividly painted plants and ornamental stones placed in the space. The kaleidoscopic environment conjures up the dazzling and dizzying experience of discovering the unknown.

Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie’s work, titled “One Has To Wander Through All The Outer Worlds To Reach The Innermost Shrine At The End”, on the other hand, features glass sculptures of chimerical beasts standing watch over hand-painted maps of imaginary and real lands. It alludes to how early adventurers, while driven by curiosity and attracted to mysterious lands, would halt their explorations when they encountered strange creatures.

Singapore artist-curator Michael Lee, who is an associate curator of this year’s biennale, says the exhibition’s move from an outlook that was international in its first three editions to a regional focus since the last edition in 2013, has allowed it to be more introspective and self-directed.

And although it is sticking with a regional approach, it has not stayed stagnant, he says. In 2013, the biennale highlighted artists practising away from the usual capitals of art in South-east Asia. This time, the scope has been extended beyond Southeast Asia to include East Asia and South Asia.

Broadening the context of the biennale has an added perk. Independent curator Suman Gopinath, who is based in Bangalore and is also an associate curator for this biennale, says: “It brings together a variety of art practices and opportunities for research and long-term collaborations that can continue even after the biennale comes to an end.”

Lee says the presentation of the Benesse Prize in conjunction with this edition of the biennale is also a mark of how far the exhibition has come. The prize is sponsored by Benesse Holdings, a Japanese company whose business interests include the fields of education, leadership training, lifestyle and nursing care.

The prize was launched in 1995 at the prestigious Venice Biennale and, until 2013, had been awarded in conjunction with the biennale in Italy.

This time, it will be given to one artist participating in the Singapore Biennale. It comes with a cash reward of three million yen (Bt1 million) and a commission to create a work to be exhibited at Benesse Art Site Naoshima, a well-known art project on the small islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima in Japan.

The biennale’s offering is bolstered by affiliate exhibitions at Gillman Barracks, the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore at Lasalle College of the Arts and the independent art space Deck in Prinsep Street.

Some artists participating in the biennale also held performances during the opening weekend.

On the opening night, Malaysian-born artist Chia Chuyia, who lives and works in Sweden, knitted a garment out of leeks to raise issues about protecting the environment and land, as well as highlight the connection between tradition and the future. Melati Suryodarmo from Indonesia, used her face as a stamp to ink rice paper. Sakarin Krue-On from Thailand, retold a traditional folktale about a tiger hunt through theatre.

For his performance art piece, Malaysian artist Azizan Paiman operated a cafe in the plaza of Singapore Art Museum’s annexe building in Queen Street as a social experiment to expose the forces that influence people’s perception and understanding of things.


- Singapore Biennale 2016 runs though February 27, 2017 at various venues around town. 

- For more information, visit www.SingaporeBiennale.org.